Whistleblower: Definition and Examples

A person proudly exposing his identity as a whistleblower.
A person proudly exposing his identity as a whistleblower.

Nanzeeba Ibnat / Getty Images

A whistleblower is a person, often an employee, who reveals information about activity within a private or public organization that is deemed illegal, immoral, illicit, unsafe, or fraudulent. While most whistleblowers work inside of the organization where the wrongdoing they report is taking place, being such an “insider” is not essential. As long as their information about wrongdoing would not otherwise become known, anyone might be considered to be a whistleblower.

Key Takeaways: Whistleblower

  • Whistleblowers are people who report wrongdoing that is illegal, immoral, illicit, unsafe, or fraudulent within private or public organizations.
  • The crimes revealed by whistleblowers can have a significant impact on the government, company shareholders, and taxpayers.
  • Even when they know they might be financially rewarded, whistleblowers are more often motivated by their sense of integrity and a genuine desire to protect the public
  • Whistleblowers are seen either as heroes for public interest and organizational accountability or as self-serving “traitors.
  • While state and federal laws are in place to protect them, whistleblowers are routinely attacked, demoted, fired, threatened, or in extreme cases, assaulted.

Definition 

Whistleblowing is defined in the U.S. Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 as occurring when a present or former employee discloses information “which the employee reasonably believes evidences a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”In simpler terms, whistleblowers are informants. While many are viewed as heroes, others are controversial. Every year, whistleblowers around the world report crimes ranging from tax fraud to pollution to espionage. Often extremely difficult for law enforcement to discover on their own, these crimes can have a significant financial impact on the government, company shareholders, and taxpayers. Without whistleblowers, they would go undetected.

It was whistleblowers, for example, who exposed the Watergate cover-up and the failures of the Vietnam War, the massive accounting fraud that brought down Enron and WorldCom in the early 2000s, and the health dangers of nicotine in tobacco products.  

The magnitude of change that whistleblowers can make cannot be understated. They are integral to the health of the government, the economy, and the public.

Origin and History

The term whistleblower or whistle blower has long been linked to the act of alerting the public of an emergency or a crime in progress. In the 19th century, the phrase whistle blower became attached itself to the enforcement of laws because police officers used a whistle to alert the public or fellow police of crimes in progress or other potential dangers. In 1883, for example, a story in the Janesville (Wisconsin) Gazette called a police officer who used a whistle to warn citizens of a riot in progress a “whistle blower.”

In the 1960s, journalists began using the single word whistleblower to refer to people who revealed wrongdoing, such as American civic activist Ralph Nader, to avoid the negative connotations found in other words such as “informant” and “snitch.” 

Ralph Nader appears here before Congress, which is investigating charges by Nader that he was harassed and intimidated by General Motors because of a book he had written critical of the automobile makers.
Ralph Nader appears here before Congress, which is investigating charges by Nader that he was harassed and intimidated by General Motors because of a book he had written critical of the automobile makers.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Nader captured the U.S. news spotlight in 1965 when his book Unsafe at Any Speed was published. The critically acclaimed journalistic exposé slammed the politically influential automobile industry by claiming that many American automobiles were generally unsafe to operate. Nader researched case files from more than 100 lawsuits then pending against General Motors' popular compact Chevrolet Corvair to support his assertions.

As an early example of the potential dangers faced by whistleblowers, Unsafe at Any Speed, though a runaway bestseller, prompted vicious retaliation from General Motors which attempted to discredit Nader by tapping his phone in an attempt to uncover salacious information and eventually hiring prostitutes in a failed attempt to catch him in a compromising situation. Nader, then working as an unpaid consultant to United States Senator Abe Ribicoff, reported to the senator that he suspected he was being followed. Senator Ribicoff convened a special congressional hearing at which General Motors CEO James Roche testified under oath that the company had hired a private detective agency to investigate Nader. Nader filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit against General Motors, winning a $425,000 settlement. 

In 1966, a year following the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Congress unanimously enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, requiring automobile manufacturers to institute safety standards to protect the public from unreasonable risk of accidents occurring as a result of the design, construction, or operation of automobiles. Speaker of the House of Representatives John William McCormack said the passage of the Act was due to the “crusading spirit of one individual who believed he could do something: Ralph Nader.”

Motivations

Extensive research, including interviews with actual whistleblowers, shows that they are often motivated by their sense of integrity and a genuine desire to protect the public. Even when federal laws provide for large monetary awards to some whistleblowers, few of them are aware of or are driven by these awards at the time they decide to speak out. Most whistleblowers raise concerns about unlawful and unsafe practices at their workplace because they are unwilling to participate in conduct they believe is wrong, even though doing so can harm their careers.

Even whistleblowers who are aware of awards programs can still be motivated by a powerful commitment to the public interest. For example, a whistleblower who qualified for a $600,000 award in 2015 for reporting wrongdoing to the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) chose to forfeit his award to protest the fact that executives who engaged in misconduct were never held personally responsible. Despite admitting that he had originally been motivated to act in part because he knew he might qualify for a large award, the whistleblower came to believe that it was more important to hold the guilty executives accountable than to recover the money for himself.

While many are motivated by a high value for truth, some whistleblowers are influenced by their codes of ethics. In these cases, whistleblowers have been criticized as having an organizational “axe to grind.” This was true of Sherron Watkins, who spoke out about gross wrongdoing within Texas-based energy company Enron in 2001. According to Jessica Uhl, a former assistant to Watkins, gender played a role in Watkins’ decision to come forward. “Look at the management team,” stated Uhl, “There’s not a lot of female faces up there, and there never has been. Sherron’s a vice president, so she’s obviously not an outsider, but there is a dividing line there. If you’re not part of the ‘boys’ club’ maybe that makes it a little easier to take a big risk.”

Along with ethics, whistleblowers may also be motivated by social and organizational pressures. A 2012 study shows that individuals are more likely to come forward when others know about the wrongdoing because they fear the consequences of remaining silent. When only one person is responsible for the wrongdoing, whistleblowers are more likely to file a formal report, rather than directly confronting the wrongdoer, because confrontation would be more emotionally and psychologically stressful. Professionals in management roles may feel a responsibility to come forward for the betterment of their organizations.

Private Sector Whistleblowing

The most common form of whistleblowing in the corporate private sector is when an employee reports to someone in a higher position such as their manager, or supervisor, to external entities, such as their lawyer or the police. While more common, whistleblowing in the public sector is arguably more suppressed in society today. Except when the wrongdoing exposed involves human rights violations, exploitation of workers, or harm to the general public, whistleblowing in the private sector is typically not high-profile or widely covered by major news outlets. 

Frances Haugen

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Kimberly White / Getty Images

In September 2021, for example, Frances Haugen, an American data engineer, and former product manager at Facebook, disclosed tens of thousands of the social media platform’s internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and The Wall Street Journal. In 2019, Haugen had been named product manager of Facebook’s “civic integrity department.” When Facebook dissolved its civic integrity team after the 2020 presidential election, Haugen decided it was important to become a whistleblower due to what she described as a pattern of Facebook “prioritizing profit over public safety.” The documents and reports Haugen made public revealed exemptions from Facebook’s community standards for high-profile users and weaknesses in its response to human trafficking, drug cartels, bullying, hate speech, and vaccine misinformation.

“During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook,” Haugen told The Wall Street Journal, “The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the U.S. government, and governments around the world. The documents I have provided to Congress prove that Facebook has repeatedly misled the public about what its own research reveals about the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems, and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages. I came forward because I believe that every human being deserves the dignity of the truth.”

In the United States, organizations such as the United States Department of Labor protect private sector whistleblowers. However, employees must still weigh their options. They either expose the company and stand the moral and ethical high ground; or expose the company, lose their job, their reputation, and potentially the ability to be employed again.

Public Sector Whistleblowing

In the public sector, the value of whistleblowing has been growing since the 1970s. State and Federal laws have been put in place to protect government whistleblowers from retaliation. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that public sector whistleblowers are protected from retaliation by their First Amendment rights. These laws were finally introduced to protect government whistleblowers after many federal whistleblowers were covered in high-profile cases.

Deep Throat

Dubbed “Deep Throat” The Washington Post, former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt, provided information about President Richard Nixon’s connection to the 1972 Watergate break-in. As a result of the scandal, Nixon stepped down in 1974, earning the distinction of being the only U.S. president to resign while in office.

Felt joined the FBI in 1942 and by 1971 was effectively in charge of the bureau’s day-to-day operations but was unexpectedly passed over for the post of FBI Director upon the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972. Shortly thereafter he began to secretly cooperate with reporter Bob Woodward of the Washington Post newspaper’s investigation into the abuses of presidential powers stemming from the break-in at the Watergate complex during the 1972 U.S presidential election campaign. His inside information was considered instrumental in implicating the Nixon White House in wrongdoing.

Daniel Ellsberg 

In 1971, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg began leaking the “Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times and The Washington Post. The documents revealed the U.S.’s growing political and military intervention in Vietnam leading up to the war there.

According to a 1996 New York Times article, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the Lyndon B. Johnson administration had “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” about the U.S. government’s role in starting the war. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with coastal raids on North Vietnam—none of which were reported in the mainstream media. Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property, but the charges were dismissed after a federal district judge declared a mistrial.

Edward Snowden

In 2013, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents revealing that the federal government gathers information on private citizens as part of its massive global electronic-surveillance programs. Hired by an NSA contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden said that he gradually became disillusioned with the programs with which he was involved, but was ignored when he tried to raise his ethical concerns through internal channels. Charged with espionage, Snowden fled the United States and was granted temporary asylum in Russia.

On September 2, 2020, a U.S. federal court ruled that the U.S. Intelligence Community’s mass surveillance program exposed by Snowden was illegal and possibly unconstitutional.

Trump-Ukraine Scandal

On August 12, 2019, an unnamed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer filed a whistleblower complaint with the Inspector General of the U.S. Intelligence Community. On September 18, The Washington Post broke the story, saying the complaint concerned a promise U.S. President Donald Trump made during communication with an unnamed foreign leader. Efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump to coerce Ukraine and other countries into providing damaging narratives about 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden as well as misinformation relating to Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections caused a political scandal in the United States.

A recorded phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made on July 25, 2019, revealed that Trump had blocked payment of a congressionally mandated $400 million military aid package to Ukraine allegedly to obtain quid pro quo cooperation from Zelensky. Trump released the funds after becoming aware of a whistleblower complaint about his activities relating to Ukraine, but before the complaint was known by Congress or the public.

The so-called Trump-Ukraine Scandal culminated on December 18, 2019, in the impeachment of the president. On February 5, 2020, the U.S. Senate acquitted Trump of the charges brought against him by the House of Representatives. 

Those are just a few key examples of the magnitude of change that government whistleblowers can make. Whistleblowing is one of the most effective ways to detect and prevent corruption and other malpractice. Whistleblowers’ disclosures have exposed wrongdoing and fraud, helping save millions in public funds. 

Perception

Whistleblowers are seen either as heroic martyrs for public interest and organizational accountability, as “traitors,” or as greedy narcissists pursuing fame or wealth. Supporters of President Trump, for example, were quick to accuse the CIA whistleblower in the Trump-Ukraine Scandal of treason.

Even those whistleblowers who have halted billion-dollar frauds or saved lives are routinely attacked, demoted to dead-end jobs, subjected to criminal investigations, and fired. Worse yet, they may be threatened or, in extreme cases, assaulted or killed. In some areas of society, whistleblowing carries connotations of betrayal rather than being seen as a benefit to the public.

Rights and Protections

Whistleblower protection law and freedom of information legislation.
Whistleblower protection law and freedom of information legislation.

Moussa81 / Getty Images

In the United States, the federally recognized National Whistleblower Appreciation Day is observed annually on July 30, on the anniversary of the country's original whistleblower protection law enacted in 1778. The law came in the case of Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven, two American seamen who accused Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy Esek Hopkins of torturing British prisoners of war. Congress dismissed Hopkins and agreed to cover the defense cost of the pair after Hopkins filed a libel suit against them under which they were imprisoned. Shaw and Marven were subsequently cleared in a jury trial.

Most U.S. federal whistleblower protection laws require that federal employees have reason to believe their employer violated some law, rule, or regulation. In cases where whistleblowing on a specified topic is protected by law, U.S. courts have generally held that such whistleblowers are protected from retaliation. In 2006, however, a closely divided U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees protect public officials whose disclosures were made as part of their public duties. 

Legal protections for whistleblowers in the U.S. vary according to the subject matter involved, and sometimes the state where the case arises. In 2002, for example, Congress enacted the Sarbanes–Oxley Act intended to help protect shareholders, employees, and the public from accounting errors and fraudulent financial practices. In passing the Act, the Senate Judiciary Committee found that whistleblower protections were dependent on the “patchwork and vagaries” of varying state statutes. Still, a wide variety of federal and state laws protect employees who call attention to violations, testify at enforcement proceedings, or refuse to obey unlawful directions from their supervisors.

Sources

  • “SEC Announces Award to Whistleblower in First Retaliation Case.” SEC Press Release, April 28, 2015, https://www.sec.gov/news/press-release/2015-75.
  • Kohn, Stephen Martin. “The Rules for Whistleblowers: A Handbook for Doing What's Right.” Lyons Press, April 1, 2023, ISBN-10: ‎1493072803.
  • Robinson, Shani N. “The Effects of Contextual and Wrongdoing Attributes on Organizational Employees' Whistleblowing Intentions Following Fraud.” Journal of Business Ethics, 2012, https://www.academia.edu/29417100.
  • Danner, Chas. "What Was Leaked in the Facebook Papers?" Intelligencer, October 24, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/10/what-was-leaked-in-the-facebook-papers.html.
  • Horwitz, Jeff. “Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That's Exempt.” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-files-xcheck-zuckerberg-elite-rules-11631541353.
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Longley, Robert. "Whistleblower: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Oct. 28, 2022, thoughtco.com/whistleblower-definition-and-examples-6744633. Longley, Robert. (2022, October 28). Whistleblower: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/whistleblower-definition-and-examples-6744633 Longley, Robert. "Whistleblower: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/whistleblower-definition-and-examples-6744633 (accessed December 9, 2022).